Hidden Treasures

Behind closed doors at the Menil: A sole Dali, Andy Warhol's corner, totems, masks & so much more

Behind closed doors at the Menil: A sole Dali, Andy Warhol's corner, totems, masks & so much more

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The Menil's climate-controlled painting storage Photo by Paul Hester
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Antiquities storage at The Menil Photo by Paul Hester
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Drawing storage Photo by Paul Hester
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Salvador Dali, "Gangsters," The Menil Collection Courtesy of Hickey-Robertson, Houston
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Feather cape, The Rock Foundation, on long-term loan to The Menil Collection Photo by Aida and Bob Mates
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Paul Cezanne, "Montagne" (Mountain), ca. 1895 Photo by Hester + Hardaway, Houston Courtesy of The Menil Collection
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The Menil Collection’s African art treasure room Hester + Hardaway, Houston Courtesy of The Menil Collection
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News_Salvador Dali, Gangsters
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News_Joseph_African_Treasure Room

Editor's Note: From time to time, CultureMap contributor Joseph Campana takes a peek behind closed doors of some of Houston's great arts institutions. First up: The hidden treasures of The Menil Collection.

Nothing seems to hide in the spare elegance of the Menil Collection. Or does it?

Certainly, the experience of Renzo Piano's design is that it welcomes you in. The collection itself seems to offer up its treasures readily and to all. But if you've ever glanced up on the way into the building, you might have only barely caught a glimpse of its second floor.

Michelle White, one of the curators of the upcoming Richard Serra Drawing: A Retrospective, which opened recently to acclaim at the Met, indicated as much. "The whole design of the building," she said, "is to conceal this floor. If you're standing on one side of the building, you can't see this floor. Small on the outside, big on the inside."

 What's not on display at the Menil? Most of the collection. Out of roughly 17,000 objects, less than five percent of the works are on display in the public galleries.

 What's up there? If you guessed offices you'd be correct, but that's not all. You might not guess you'd find a series of rooms packed full of the many treasures that Dominique de Menil gathered together to constitute one of the great collections built around an individual's visionary taste.

In a May 26, 1987 feature for The New York Times about the establishment of the Menil Collection, de Menil discussed the building's two-fold purpose: 

"I wanted a place that gives the viewer time and space to look at art,'' she said. ''Most museums are overloaded with works that compete for the viewer's eye, and there's a limit to the attention span. After an  hour, you're tired and you don't see paintings any more.'' To banish ''museum fatigue,'' she came up with the concept of rotating the collection, showing only small parts of it at any one time. What's not on view is hung in the study-storage spaces, accessible by appointment to scholars, students and art lovers.

Leave it to de Menil (and Renzo Piano) to make even storage space innovative. But it does beg the question: "What's not on display at the Menil?"

One answer to the question would be: Most of the collection. Out of roughly 17,000 objects, White and other staff at the Menil estimate that at any one time, less than five percent of the works are on display in the public galleries.

The other answer to the question would be: Everything is always on display in these innovative storage or treasure rooms, which, though not open to the general public, offer curators and scholars the chance to see works in ideal conditions.

"These storage facilities are really unique in museum design," White told me.  "Normally storage rooms are in the basement. It's really different because it's an elevation of art storage —visible storage. Everything is accessible in a wonderful way with gallery lighting or with natural light."

Still, for the curators, it might seem that nearly all of the works are simply present all the time. "It's funny, " White said, "my understanding of the collection is never on view versus  off view."

Awe and wonder

My tour of the treasure rooms with White began with a ride up the elevator, a walk through the curatorial offices and then down into to a corridor of doors and windows. In the morning light they looked like they might go on forever. Or that you might step out of the Menil and right into a Magritte. And who knew there was such a great view of downtown from the Museum District?

Upon entering one of what must be many rooms packed with modern masterpieces, I audibly gasped.

"That's the idea." White told me. "It's like a wunderkammer or a cabinet of curiosities. There is supposed to be this moment of 'Wow!' when you walk in, which is a surrealist's approach to art, always having a feeling of awe and wonder."

 Where to look? Works were grouped by artists, and I couldn't figure out whether I wanted to linger by the Pablo Picassos, wander past the Paul Klees, or hang out in Andy Warhol's personal corner. 

Awe and wonder indeed.

Where to look? Works were grouped by artists, and I couldn't figure out whether I wanted to linger by the Pablo Picassos, wander past the Paul Klees, or hang out in Andy Warhol's personal corner.

Out of the bewildering array of greatness, one work leapt out at me. "What is that?" I asked.

"That's a Dali. It's our only Dali. We have the world's greatest surrealist collection but only one Dali," she said. "This was in the Dali and Film exhibition, it's called 'Gangsters.'"

After having seen altogether too many college dorm-room posters of Dali's melting clocks, I'm a little jaded about those works. "Gangsters" felt like a revelation, more narrative than what's become the everyday Dali, and not unlike what we expect now from graphic novels.

In one narrative panel, a mobster punches and kicks through a door through a window with one hand and gropes a starlet with another while his assailant struggles with a two-handed arm to point a gun away from his face. Below, a lone and lonely man walks by a river past a scattering of what look like bones and then walks into the river with a rock held over his head.

In the final sequence strange trees and fruit (or modern sculpture?) surround oddly mafia-esque figures: a dame in front of a mirror and a boss in a bathtub with two umbrella-topped walking canes. The Harlequin-like figure stretching a bow to shoot an arrow seemingly nowhere brings us from the Mafia back to the Dali we know.

From Dali to Cezanne

After dwelling on the Dali a few moments, my eyes were drawn to the somber blues and dark roses of Paul Cezanne's quite minimal "Montagne (Mountain)" (ca. 1895). "This is one of the very first works the de Menils collected," White told me. "A Cezanne water color. John de Menil brought it back in his suitcase."

Once I knew it was a Cezanne, the color choices made sense, but the bare suggestion of landscape was so much more spare than I expected from this painter. The surprise of this work was central to the way Mrs. de Menil's understood collecting.

 "Are you overwhelmed yet?" White asked. I must have been visibly sagging under the weight of all these treasures. "Completely," I replied.

 "Mrs. de Menil  would talk about collecting as a prophetic work because when she first saw this there was so little paint and she didn't understand," White said. "It takes some kind of process of seeing and looking to understand great art. The minimalist economy of this work becomes more amplified in the future collecting."

"Are you overwhelmed yet?" White asked. I must have been visibly sagging under the weight of all these treasures. "Completely," I replied.

Happily the tour wasn't over, and White brought me next to a treasure packed with works from the African, Pacific Islands, and Pacific Northwest collection until recently curated by Kristina Van Dyke, who departs the Menil to become the director of the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts.

Near the entrance, on a short pedestal, a gathering of figures and totems and masks looks like a procession about to begin or a party prepared to perform a ceremony of welcome. Across from that pedestal, a majestic cape hangs on a far wall. You wouldn't know from its solidity, or from afar, that it is delicately woven of feathers.

"Miraculous, isn't it?" White asked. I couldn't have put it better.